Tim Love: The Rootinest, Tootinest, Doggone Shootinest Chef in the West
Beneath all that folksy cowboy bluster, he harbors a secret.
With Lonesome Dove and the White Elephant, Love’s feet were planted firmly in Fort Worth. Still, the city wasn’t sure it trusted him. Some thought he would ruin the White Elephant. Others looked askance at menus whose kangaroo carpaccio nachos with habanero-fig demi-glace were a far cry from home cooking. But Zagat quickly ranked Lonesome Dove the No. 1 restaurant in the city, and the Dallas Morning News awarded it a four-star rating. “For a restaurant in the Stockyards, that was kind of unheard of,” Love says.
His “urban cowboy” cuisine aims for the boldness of unfussy food, well executed—like a steak that tastes of wood smoke and grassfed beef. Communing with fire and a hunk of meat is a primal urge, he’ll tell you. It taps into something deep, like a hunger for the Western frontier. Everyone wants to be a pioneer at heart. “They wanna be Americans,” he says.
“I love the whole attitude of what the cowboy is and was,” Love says. “A pioneering person with this innate politeness, yet adventurous and risk-taking. Not scared. I feel like I’ve always had that attitude in everything that I do, including my food. I’m not afraid to get beat, either. Cowboys are not always the winners, by any means. They’re just the ones that weren’t afraid to take the risk.”
His success cemented in Fort Worth, Love was soon ready to light out for a new frontier. Instead of heading west, though, Love went east. And his experience in New York raised doubts about whether you can export the cowboy without turning him into a cartoon.
In 2006, with the original Lonesome Dove doing well, Love opened a second one in Manhattan. Texas-born New York transplant Lisa Fain, whose cookbook The Homesick Texan evolved out of her blog of the same title, remembers walking over to meet her compatriot at the opening of Lonesome Dove. “The door was open, and he and some workers were working on the bar. He was just so nice. Really friendly,” she says. “It’s interesting, though. In the early days, it was packed, and later there were fewer people. It made me sad. He was Texan.” That was the problem. New York, it turned out, wasn’t sold on the cowboy thing.
Frank Bruni of the New York Times played up the culture shock. In his “First Impressions” piece, he feigned ignorance, wondering if he should have worn a Stetson. “Isn’t that what they’re called?” he asked. “Those widebrimmed hats on the range?” His full review one month later was titled “A Texas Saloon Rides Into Town,” and clearly the town Love rode into didn’t know what to make of what Bruni dubbed a “festive hoedown” of flavors.
Reactions registered bewilderment, even pity. Adam Platt of New York magazine commented on the “tattered-looking steer skin” spread on the sidewalk like a welcome mat that took a beating in the late-fall weather. It was a question of bad fi t, he theorized. While Love earned laurels in his hometown, the restaurant seemed “goofy and a little off-key” in New York. The antler chandelier, the paintings of jumbo-size cowboy boots, the chefs in cowboy hats—everything felt like a gimmick.
“It was a little over-the-top, I think, for New Yorkers,” Love concedes. “We should have gone for a more polished ranch feel, as opposed to the more rustic feel that we went for.”
In retrospect, Fain blames bad timing. “I honestly think that it was just too soon,” she says. “I think Texan cuisine has just in the last two years become recognized. There’s a lot of excitement now, but back then, people were like, ‘Oh, it’s the hick from the South.’ ”
Maybe there’s nothing Love could have done. “The George Bush thing didn’t help,” he says. “People hated George Bush in New York City. I mean, hated him. With a passion. It’s like they wanted to not like the restaurant.”
Lonesome Dove closed its doors after eight months. “It was a business decision,” he says. “The restaurant wasn’t losing money, but it wasn’t making significant money. Someone wanted to buy us out. It’s about what’s best for the business, not for my ego. I put a lot of emotion in the food, and I get excited about it, but at the end of the day, it’s gotta have cash fl ow, or we just move on. It’s not emotional for me.”
In many ways, New York’s response to Love makes sense. I recognize the skepticism. They doubted how much of the place could be genuine. How do you convince the sophisticates of the Flatiron district that cowboy boots and Stetson hats aren’t a gimmick where you come from—might, in fact, be so familiar to you that you forget they could seem foreign elsewhere? Removed from its context, Love’s cowboy aesthetic became a caricature. How could it not be? Attempts to provide context only drew the cartoon in more garish hues.
Ultimately, though, Love calls the New York episode the most fortuitous move he ever made because of the connections he forged, connections that landed him on shows such as Food Network’s Iron Chef and pulled him into the high-profile food festival circuit.
After the New York misadventure, Love remembers talking with his publicist. “What are we going to do about it?” Love asked.
“We’re not going to do anything,” came the reply. “The only way you have good PR is if you create it. You gotta be yourself. You gotta build a restaurant that people love.”
Reflecting on the time, Love recognizes his youthful ambition. “What I didn’t realize, maturity-wise, was that what I really needed to do was develop my cuisine in my own town. I cook with so much more confidence now. I know what I want to cook.”
The Woodshed Smokehouse, the restaurant he opened last winter that feels like a backyard barbecue on the banks of the Trinity River, is the perfect expression of where they’ve arrived together, Love and his city. “The city trusts me now,” he says. “It’s a very traditional town. That’s what I love about it.”
But he also notes an adventurousness absent a decade ago. Which may explain why by 10 o’clock on a weekend morning, a welldressed woman can perch at the Woodshed bar and order the last goat-meat breakfast taco before reaching for a newspaper. For the intrepid, there’s Korean barbecue-style Bulgogi beef with house-made kimchi. But there’s also a pulled pork sandwich.
“If you ever get nervous, you can always get that and know it’ll be okay,” he says. Love’s underlying principle: make people comfortable so they try new things. He says, “I’ll see things on Twitter: ‘I don’t know what the hell I had at the Woodshed, but it was awesome.’ ”
But, he says, “I probably wouldn’t have served the Woodshed menu 12 years ago. They would have said, ‘Hey! Do you know where you’re at, boy? This is Fort Worth!’ ”
This kind of honesty—and mature understanding of place—are part of what impressed chef Marcus Samuelsson, a friend of Love’s and owner of the celebrated Red Rooster in Harlem. Samuelsson recognizes Love as a fellow “outsider” with pride in his roots and someone whose hunting background reminds Samuelsson of his Ethiopian heritage. “He’s not wearing a cowboy hat for image. That’s why it’ll always look good on him,” Samuelsson says. “Lonesome Dove is four walls that show that community. It’s in and of that community.”
Midafternoon on a Saturday in the Stockyards, past the original Love Shack hamburger joint, a line forms for the mechanical bull as white-knuckled kids take turns whooping and gyrating. Between rides, the man in the control booth dips French fries from a paper bag emblazoned with the Love Shack logo. This, too, is what it means to be “in and of” a community.
When I ask Love when he first thought he’d made it, he balks. At some point, though, you must realize you’ve gone from cheese and mustard sandwiches to an empire. His is undeniably a success story, yet he seems uncomfortable characterizing it as such. What about the 4,500-acre ranch? It’s a 20-year lease, he says, deflecting. But the question has brought a scene to mind, and in recounting the exuberant moment, he finds himself answering the question:
A festival atmosphere reigns on the ranch as friends join him and his son for the opening of dove season, celebrating with drinks afterward. “Shoot,” he says, “I never thought I’d even come close to that. Everything I do is a dream. I forget it a lot, because I’m so busy trying to make it happen. You either pull the trigger, or you sit back and watch somebody else do it. We started everything from scratch
We had nothing. Not that I’d ever want to go back to that place, but I’m not afraid of it.”
Like he wasn’t afraid to make the Austin festival happen, with its 250 people playing with fi re. “It was a gigantic risk, financially,” he says. (He won’t give figures but likens it to opening two restaurants, all for one weekend.) His co-founder, Tyson Cole, a chef who opened the first high-end sushi restaurant in Austin and was named Best Chef Southwest by the James Beard Society in 2011, later told me the festival was the biggest risk of his career. He said this slowly, thoughtfully, and with certainty.
“Before, I’ve always been the talent,” Cole says. “I’ve never been the one who puts his signature on the bottom line. We didn’t want to go too large, but we wanted to make sure it looked great. We handed out a whole bunch of extra tickets, and we basically wanted people to have a good time. We knew we would lose money the first year. It’s a first year.”
The latest outpost of the Love empire is at Amon G. Carter Stadium, on the TCU campus. Love is working with Sodexo, the company that runs the university’s concessions and catering. Horned Frog fans can now enjoy Woodshed menu items, like the pulled pork sandwich, Mexican corn on the cob, and sausage of the day.
“It was me and all these big companies,” Love says of the bidding process. “Everyone looks at me like, ‘Why the hell is Tim Love here?’ Shoot, I wanna bid on it.”
Feeding thousands? Done that at the Austin City Limits music festival, where he has cranked out 70,000 burgers in three days and fed the rockers rabbit-rattlesnake sausage and venison foie gras sliders. Now he had a vision to shake up college sports concessions, go for “real cheese, real meat, fresh ingredients, made-in-house sauces, onions that weren’t cut three weeks ago.” Maybe peddle Bulgogi beef tacos from street carts. Give them something to talk about. “You don’t want to change the sporting experience. You can serve burgers. You just gotta serve quality burgers,” he says. “Course, I wanted to start it in my own town first.”
And there it is again: the way he casts himself resolutely as a mere participant in—not orchestrator of—his success. It’s there in the way he describes the Austin festival as the best day of his life. It’s in the fact that a lived moment on the ranch is his answer to a question about how he knew he’d made it. That’s why you can’t reduce Love to marketing.
Love’s TCU project has his “Giddyup!” ambition written all over it. But this is not bravado. His confidence is both earnest and earned. In this business, he says, you’re like a duck swimming: never let them see how hard you’re working under the surface.